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Sergei Winitzki

(Dated: DRAFT December 3, 2006)

This is a pedagogical account of the concept of “independent degrees of freedom” for classical

ﬁelds. I propose two deﬁnitions and show how to compute the number of degrees of freedom for the

electromagnetic and the gravitational ﬁelds.

I. DEGREES OF FREEDOM IN MECHANICS

AND IN FIELD THEORY

In classical mechanics, one says that a system has n

degrees of freedom if it can be unambiguously described

by specifying n real-valued functions of time q

1

(t), ...,

q

n

(t), called generalized coordinates, and if it cannot be

described by a fewer number of coordinates. (Of course,

a system can always be described by a larger number of

coordinates than strictly necessary.) For example, two

point masses m

1

, m

2

moving in three-dimensional space

and connected by a rigid, inﬁnitely thin massless rod

comprise a mechanical system with ﬁve degrees of free-

dom. The state of this system can be speciﬁed by the

values of three Euclidean coordinates x

1

, y

1

, z

1

of the

ﬁrst point mass and two spherical angles φ, θ describing

the orientation of the rod.

To compute the number of degrees of freedom (DOF)

in a mechanical system, one starts with a description of

the system in some set of generalized coordinates, looks

at the equations of motion, and determines the number

of independent integration constants needed to describe

the general solution. This number is equal to twice the

number of the DOF. (The factor 2 comes from having co-

ordinates q

i

and velocities ˙ q

i

for each DOF.) For example,

the equations of motion

¨ x = y, ¨ y = 1 (1)

allow four independent constants of integration, and

therefore the system has two degrees of freedom.

The computation of the DOF in mechanics is relatively

simple because every system is made of a ﬁnite number of

point masses. In ﬁeld theory, the basic object of descrip-

tion is not a point mass but a ﬁeld which is a function of

space and time. For example, the state of a scalar ﬁeld

(e.g. charge density) is described by a function ρ(t, x),

while an electromagnetic ﬁeld can be described by the

4-vector potential A

µ

(t, x). According to the deﬁnition

used in mechanics, any ﬁeld has inﬁnitely many degrees

of freedom since one needs inﬁnitely many functions of

time (such as A

µ

(t, x

1

), A

µ

(t, x

2

), etc., for every possible

vector x) to describe the states of the system. One would

like to have a more discriminating deﬁnition of the DOF,

so that diﬀerent ﬁelds can be distinguished by their num-

ber of DOF. For instance, we would like to say that the

scalar ﬁeld ρ(t, x) has “fewer” DOF than the vector ﬁeld

A

µ

.

Indeed, the deﬁnition of DOF in ﬁeld theory is diﬀerent

from that in ordinary mechanics. We shall ﬁrst consider

a straightforward deﬁnition of DOF and later consider a

diﬀerent meaning of “DOF” and give a second deﬁnition.

Deﬁnition 1: A ﬁeld has n DOF if its physical states

can be unambiguously described by n real-valued func-

tions of space and time, and no fewer number of functions

of space and time can suﬃce.

According to this deﬁnition, a scalar ﬁeld has one

DOF, while a vector ﬁeld, such as A

µ

, has four DOF

because the four components A

0

, A

1

, A

2

, A

3

are real-

valued functions. However, this conclusion is not quite

correct for the electromagnetic ﬁeld because of the gauge

invariance of electrodynamics. A gauge transformation

changes A

µ

(t, x) to another function,

A

µ

(t, x) →

˜

A

µ

(t, x) = A

µ

(t, x) + ∂

µ

α(t, x), (2)

where α(t, x) is an arbitrary function of space and time.

However, the physically observable eﬀects of the ﬁelds

A

µ

and

˜

A

µ

are the same, i.e. we cannot distinguish be-

tween the states of the electromagnetic ﬁeld described by

A

µ

and

˜

A

µ

. In other words, the two diﬀerent functions

A

µ

(t, x) and

˜

A

µ

(t, x) describe the same physical state of

the electromagnetic ﬁeld. Since the gauge freedom con-

tains an arbitrary function of space and time, we expect

that the electromagnetic ﬁeld actually has fewer than four

DOF.

In the particular case of the gauge transformation (2),

it is easy to see that the function α can be chosen to

set A

0

(t, x) = 0. The remaining three functions form a

3-vector potential A ≡ (A

1

, A

2

, A

3

) and are still subject

to the residual gauge freedom,

A(t, x) →

˜

A(t, x) = A(t, x) +∇α(x). (3)

However, the function α now may depend only on x (but

not on t). We only count functions of all four coordinates,

and thus the residual gauge transformations (3) do not

reduce the eﬀective number of the DOF. We conclude

that the electromagnetic ﬁeld has three DOF. In Deﬁni-

tion 1, the phrase “physical states” must be understood

as “ﬁeld conﬁgurations up to gauge freedom.”

II. DEGREES OF FREEDOM IN VACUUM

In some situations, it is necessary to consider a more

restrictive deﬁnition of the number of DOF. In partic-

ular, care should be taken when dealing with ﬁelds in

backgrounds or those having higher-order equations of

motion.

2

An important issue is to describe vacuum solutions,

i.e. nontrivial solutions in the absence of sources. For

example, electromagnetic waves are vacuum solutions of

electrodynamics because these solutions can propagate in

vacuum, in the absence of any charges or currents. We ex-

pect that in a given theory there are inﬁnitely many vac-

uum solutions and that all these solutions are described

by a certain number of arbitrary functions. This num-

ber is what we call the number of vacuum DOF. We shall

ﬁrst count the number of vacuum DOF for electrodynam-

ics and then formulate a more general deﬁnition which is

applicable also to nonlinear ﬁeld theories such as general

relativity.

A. Vacuum DOF in electrodynamics

The 4-vector potential A

µ

(t, x) is a solution of the

Maxwell equations which may be written as

∂

ν

∂

ν

A

µ

−∂

µ

(∂

ν

A

ν

) = j

µ

, (4)

where j

µ

(t, x) is the 4-vector describing the sources

(charges and currents). Note that the current j

µ

must

satisfy the conservation law

∂

µ

j

µ

= 0, (5)

which follows from Eq. (4) by applying ∂

µ

to both sides; if

the current j

µ

is not conserved, Eq. (4) cannot be solved.

We shall now consider the vacuum situation, j

µ

= 0.

An example of a vacuum solution is the plane wave

A

µ

(t, x) = a

µ

cos (k

ν

x

ν

) , (6)

where a

ν

is a 4-vector describing the amplitude of the

wave and k

ν

is the wave vector. Let us ﬁnd the number

of independent solutions of the form (6). By substitut-

ing into Eq. (4) with j

µ

= 0 one can verify that the

ansatz (6) is a vacuum solution only if k

ν

k

ν

= 0 and

a

ν

k

ν

= 0, i.e. k

µ

must be a null 4-vector and a

µ

must

be orthogonal to k

µ

. All 4-vectors a

µ

orthogonal to k

µ

form a three-dimensional subspace spanned by k

µ

itself

and two spacelike vectors that we shall denote l

µ

and m

µ

.

To ﬁnd the components of the vectors l

µ

and m

µ

explic-

itly, consider the components of the vector k

µ

≡ (k

0

, k)

and choose any pair of 3-vectors l, m which are orthogo-

nal to each other and to the 3-vector k; then the vectors

l

µ

≡ (0, l) and m

µ

≡ (0, m) are orthogonal to each other

and to k

µ

. Therefore the admissible vacuum solutions of

the form (6) must have the amplitude vector a

µ

of the

form

a

µ

= αk

µ

+ βl

µ

+ γm

µ

, (7)

where α, β, γ are constant coeﬃcients (which are so far

arbitrary). Furthermore, a gauge transformation of the

form

A

µ

→A

µ

+ ∂

µ

[λsin (k

ν

x

ν

)] (8)

changes the amplitude by a

µ

→ a

µ

+ λk

µ

, where λ is

an arbitrary constant. Now the term αk

µ

in Eq. (7) can

be removed by a gauge transformation (8) with λ = −α,

and the remaining freedom in choosing the amplitude a

µ

consists of choosing the two coeﬃcients β, γ. Thus the

admissible plane waves of the form (6) are described by

just two free parameters.

We are getting near the (correct) conclusion that the

vacuum solutions of the Maxwell equations have only two

DOF. However, this conclusion is not yet fully justiﬁed

because the plane waves of the form (6) are not the only

possible vacuum solutions. Let us therefore imagine the

set of all vacuum solutions and try to analyze the struc-

ture of this set.

Since Eq. (4) with j

µ

= 0 is linear in A

µ

and homo-

geneous, all vacuum solutions form a linear space (linear

combinations of vacuum solutions are again vacuum so-

lutions). This linear space is inﬁnite-dimensional because

there are inﬁnitely many independent vacuum solutions;

for instance, all plane waves (6) with diﬀerent null vec-

tors k

µ

are linearly independent. A general vacuum solu-

tion A

(vac)

µ

(x) is an arbitrary superposition of plane waves

with diﬀerent amplitudes and diﬀerent (null) wave vec-

tors k

µ

≡ (k, k),

A

(vac)

µ

(x) =

d

3

ke

ikµx

µ

a

k

, (9)

where a

k

are arbitrary k-dependent amplitudes. To ob-

tain a useful description of the space of vacuum solutions,

we need to somehow reduce this huge space to a ﬁnite-

dimensional vector space. Let us consider the values of

the vacuum solution A

(vac)

µ

(x

0

) at a ﬁxed spacetime point

x

0

≡ (t

0

, x

0

). The set of values A

(vac)

µ

(x

0

) for all possible

vacuum solutions A

(vac)

µ

comprises a vector space because

electrodynamics obeys the superposition principle. This

vector space is a subspace of the 4-dimensional vector

space of all possible 4-vectors A

µ

(t

0

, x

0

). Of course, the

dimension of this subspace does not depend on the cho-

sen point (t

0

, x

0

) because the equations of motion are

invariant under spacetime translations. This motivates

us to consider the following tentative deﬁnition.

Deﬁnition 2: A ﬁeld has n vacuum DOF if the val-

ues of all permissible vacuum solutions at a ﬁxed point

(t

0

, x

0

) comprise a vector space of dimension n.

In the next section we shall describe a more straightfor-

ward way to compute the number of DOF from this def-

inition. The key ingredient will be to perform a Fourier

transformation on the ﬁeld.

B. Computing the vacuum DOF via the Fourier

transform

The equations of motion (4) are linear diﬀerential equa-

tions with constant coeﬃcients, so their Fourier trans-

form can be written as

−k

ν

k

ν

˜

A

µ

(k) + k

µ

k

ν

˜

A

ν

(k) =

˜

j

µ

, (10)

3

where

˜

A

µ

(k) and

˜

j

µ

(k) are the four-dimensional Fourier

transforms of the 4-potential A

µ

(t, x) and the 4-current

j

µ

(t, x). The functions

˜

A

µ

(k) and

˜

j

µ

(k) are usually called

the Fourier modes of the ﬁeld and the current. The vac-

uum equations (with

˜

j

µ

= 0) can be written as

k

µ

k

ν

−k

2

δ

ν

µ

˜

A

ν

≡ W

ν

µ

˜

A

ν

= 0, (11)

where W

ν

µ

(k) is a “matrix” that depends on k

µ

and we

write k

2

≡ k

µ

k

µ

. It is clear that the solutions of the

homogeneous equation (11) comprise a linear subspace S

of the initial four-dimensional space of values of

˜

A

µ

, and

that the dimensionality of the subspace S will depend on

the 4-vector k

µ

. Therefore it will be convenient to analyze

the solutions at a ﬁxed k

µ

. In the physical space, these

solutions correspond to plane waves with a ﬁxed wave

vector k

µ

.

Note that

˜

A

µ

= λk

µ

(where λ is a scalar function of

k

µ

) is always a solution of Eq. (11), and thus the one-

dimensional subspace k

µ

spanned by the vector k

µ

is

always a subspace of S. But note that the gauge trans-

formations (2) are equivalent to

˜

A

µ

→

˜

A

µ

−ik

µ

˜ α. (12)

Since all solutions of the form

˜

A

µ

+ λk

µ

are gauge

equivalent, the space of physically relevant indepen-

dent solutions are found as a factorspace of S by the

one-dimensional subspace spanned by the vector k

µ

,

i.e. S

phys

= S/ k

µ

. The subspace k

µ

is thus the sub-

space of pure gauge solutions, i.e. solutions that are not

physically diﬀerent from

˜

A

µ

= 0.

To analyze the space S of solutions of Eq. (11) at a

ﬁxed k

µ

, it suﬃces to consider two cases: k

2

= 0 and

k

2

= 0. If k

2

= 0, Eq. (11) gives

˜

A

µ

= k

µ

˜

A

ν

k

ν

k

2

= ak

µ

, (13)

where a is some constant. However, this solution is en-

tirely within the gauge subspace and thus there are no

nontrivial vacuum solutions for k

2

= 0. In the remain-

ing case k

2

= 0 (but k

µ

= 0), we have

˜

A

µ

k

µ

= 0 and

thus

˜

A

µ

belongs to the three-dimensional subspace of 4-

vectors orthogonal to k

µ

. We have analyzed this subspace

above and found its basis in the form (k

µ

, l

µ

, m

µ

) with

the decomposition (7). In other words, S = k

µ

, l

µ

, m

µ

**and therefore the factorspace S/ k
**

µ

= l

µ

, m

µ

is two-

dimensional.

Finally, we note that the mode with the zero wavenum-

ber k

µ

= 0 (called the zero mode) corresponds to the

homogeneous solution A

µ

(t, x) = A

(0)

µ

= const, i.e. the

4-potential A

µ

is constant in space and time. This solu-

tion can be reduced to A

µ

= 0 by a gauge transformation

of the form

A

µ

→A

µ

−∂

µ

A

(0)

ν

x

ν

(14)

and thus is not a physically nontrivial vacuum solution.

(We call a solution physically trivial if it is gauge equiv-

alent to the trivial solution A

µ

= 0.)

Our conclusion is that the space of vacuum solutions

for electrodynamics is two-dimensional. We have ob-

tained this result solely by analyzing the dimension of

a certain ﬁnite-dimensional vector space that we con-

structed as the factor space of the vacuum solutions by

the pure gauge subspace.

C. Vacuum DOF in general relativity

General relativity describes the dynamical geometry

of the spacetime through the metric g

µν

(x). We shall

consider the situation when the geometry is almost ﬂat

except for small gravitational perturbations, so that in

appropriate coordinate systems we have

g

µν

(x) = η

µν

+ h

µν

(x), |h

µν

| ≪1. (15)

The coordinate transformations

x

µ

→x

µ

+ ξ

µ

(x) (16)

play the role of gauge transformations in this theory. If

we consider only transformations with very small ξ, then

to ﬁrst order we may write the gauge transformation for

h

µν

as

h

µν

→h

µν

+ ξ

µ,ν

+ ξ

ν,µ

. (17)

Note that we do not need to employ covariant derivatives

such as ξ

µ;ν

because the diﬀerence between the covariant

and the ordinary derivatives is of second order in the

perturbations.

The symmetric tensor h

µν

has 10 independent com-

ponents, but not all of them are physically signiﬁcant,

and the number of independent components is further

reduced by the equations of motion. In this section we

shall compute the number of DOF in the gravitational

perturbations.

The vacuum equations of motion can be written as

G

µν

= 0. Since R

µν

= G

µν

−

1

2

Gg

µν

, we may also write

the vacuum equations in the form R

µν

= 0 which is a

little simpler. A calculation shows that the Ricci tensor

R

µν

is expressed through the metric perturbation h

µν

as

2R

µν

= η

αβ

(h

µα,νβ

+ h

να,µβ

) −h

µν

−h

,µν

, (18)

where = η

αβ

∂

α

∂

β

and h ≡ η

αβ

h

αβ

. It is convenient at

this point to perform a Fourier transform in all spacetime

coordinates and consider the Fourier images

˜

h

µν

and

˜

ξ

µ

.

Then the equation of motion R

µν

= 0 and the gauge

transformation (17) are rewritten as

−

˜

h

µα

k

ν

+

˜

h

να

k

µ

k

α

+ k

2

˜

h

µν

+

˜

hk

µ

k

ν

= 0, (19)

˜

h

µν

→

˜

h

µν

+ k

µ

˜

ξ

ν

+ k

ν

˜

ξ

µ

. (20)

4

We have thus obtained a linear, homogeneous equa-

tion for the 10 independent components of

˜

h

µν

and addi-

tionally a gauge equivalence relation containing four free

parameters

˜

ξ

µ

. In principle we may now consider a 10-

dimensional linear space consisting of these independent

components Q

i

, i = 1, ..., 10, and rewrite the equation of

motion and the gauge equivalence relation in the matrix

form,

F

ij

Q

i

= 0, Q

i

→Q

i

+ G

iµ

ξ

µ

, (21)

where F

ij

and G

iµ

are suitable 10×10 and 10×4 matrices.

The solutions of the equation F

ij

Q

i

= 0 form a subspace

S in the 10-dimensional space; for a given solution Q

i

(0)

∈

S, the solutions that are gauge equivalent to Q

i

(0)

diﬀer

by a vector from the pure gauge subspace G ⊂ S. The

problem of counting the DOF is then reduced to ﬁnding

the dimensions of these subspaces S and G ⊂ S, which is

a standard problem in ﬁnite-dimensional linear algebra.

The number of DOF is then dimS −dimG.

The calculations are thus made entirely straightfor-

ward but cumbersome. Rather than write the matrices

F

ij

and G

iµ

explicitly, we shall simplify the equations

for

˜

h

µν

in the tensor notation, use the gauge equivalence

relations, and arrive to the answer more easily.

First consider the 4-vector s

µ

≡

˜

h

αµ

k

α

. Under a gauge

transformation, the vector s

µ

changes as

s

µ

→s

µ

+

˜

ξ

µ

k

2

+

˜

ξ

α

k

α

k

µ

, (22)

and the scalar product s

µ

k

µ

=

˜

h

µν

k

µ

k

ν

transforms as

s

µ

k

µ

→s

µ

k

µ

+ 2k

2

˜

ξ

α

k

α

. (23)

This transformation is trivial if k

2

= 0, so it appears

that we need to consider the cases k

2

= 0 and k

2

= 0

separately.

If k

2

= 0, then we can always ﬁnd a vector

˜

ξ

α

such

that

˜

ξ

α

k

α

= −

s

µ

k

µ

2k

2

, (24)

and then s

µ

k

µ

vanishes after the gauge transforma-

tion (23). After performing this gauge transformation,

we still have the freedom to perform additional gauge

transformations with vectors

˜

ξ

α

such that

˜

ξ

α

k

α

= 0. The

vector s

µ

would change under such a transformation as

s

µ

→s

µ

+ k

2

˜

ξ

µ

. (25)

Therefore we may set s

µ

= 0 by choosing

˜

ξ

µ

= −

s

µ

k

2

; (26)

note that this gauge transformation is allowed since we

already have set s

µ

k

µ

= 0. After performing this last

gauge transformation, we have no more remaining gauge

freedom.

Using the relation s

µ

≡

˜

h

µν

k

ν

= 0, we may simplify

the equation of motion (19) to

˜

hk

µ

k

ν

+ k

2

˜

h

µν

= 0. (27)

Computing the scalar product of Eq. (27) with k

µ

, we

ﬁnd

˜

hk

µ

k

2

= 0 and thus

˜

h = 0. Substituting this into

Eq. (27), we obtain k

2˜

h

µν

= 0 and ﬁnally

˜

h

µν

= 0. Thus

there are no physically nontrivial solutions of the vacuum

equations when k

2

= 0.

In the case k

2

= 0 (but k

α

= 0), we cannot perform

the gauge transformations as above and need to take a

diﬀerent approach. The trace

˜

h changes under a gauge

transformation as

˜

h →

˜

h + 2

˜

ξ

α

k

α

. (28)

Thus we may set

˜

h = 0 after a suitable gauge transfor-

mation. There will remain the freedom to perform gauge

transformations with vectors

˜

ξ

α

such that

˜

ξ

α

k

α

= 0.

After setting

˜

h = 0, we simplify the equation of mo-

tion (19) to

s

µ

k

ν

+ s

ν

k

µ

= 0, s

µ

≡

˜

h

µν

k

ν

. (29)

Since the vector k

µ

= 0, the equation (29) has no

other solutions except s

µ

= 0. [To verify this, one ﬁrst

computes a scalar product with a vector a

µ

such that

a

µ

k

µ

= −1; the vector a

µ

exists as long as k

µ

= 0. Then

one obtains s

ν

= (s

µ

a

µ

) k

ν

and thus the vectors s

µ

and

k

µ

are parallel, s

µ

= λk

µ

. Then the substitution into

Eq. (29) gives λ = 0.]

Thus we have reduced the equations of motion and the

gauge equivalence relation to

˜

h ≡

˜

h

µν

η

µν

= 0,

˜

h

µν

k

ν

= 0, (30)

˜

h

µν

→

˜

h

µν

+ k

µ

˜

ξ

ν

+ k

ν

˜

ξ

µ

,

˜

ξ

µ

k

µ

= 0. (31)

At this point we could introduce an explicit basis in the

4-dimensional space and ﬁnd the remaining independent

components, but we shall instead proceed without choos-

ing a basis. The equations (30) represent 5 constraints

on the 10 independent components of

˜

h

µν

and thus we

can expect the space of solutions to be 5-dimensional.

The gauge equivalence relations are parametrized by the

vector

˜

ξ

µ

which is constrained to remain orthogonal to

k

µ

; such vectors form a 3-dimensional space. Thus it ap-

pears that there are 5 − 3 = 2 independent DOF. The

remaining task is to verify that the subspace of solutions

of Eq. (30) and the pure gauge subspace are indeed 5-

dimensional and 3-dimensional respectively.

The subspace S of solutions of the ﬁve constraints (30)

will have more than 10 − 5 = 5 dimensions if the con-

straints were not independent, i.e. if there exists a vanish-

ing linear combination of the constraints. This is equiv-

alent to the existence of ﬁve coeﬃcients A, B

µ

, not all

equal to zero, such that

Aη

µν

+ B

µ

k

ν

= 0. (32)

5

The scalar product of Eq. (32) with k

ν

yields A = 0 and

then the scalar product with any vector a

µ

such that

a

µ

k

µ

= 0 yields B

µ

= 0. Therefore the constraints (30)

are linearly independent and the space S has dimension

ﬁve.

Now we shall verify that the gauge equivalence reduces

this ﬁve-dimensional space to a two-dimensional factor

space. The gauge transformations (31) are compatible

with the constraints (30) in the sense that the gauge-

transformed solutions always satisfy the constraints.

Given a solution

˜

h

(0)

µν

of the constraints (30), we may

consider the set of gauge-transformed solutions

˜

h

(0)

µν

+

˜

ξ

µ

k

ν

+

˜

ξ

ν

k

µ

. (33)

This set is an (aﬃne) space and we would like to show

that this space has dimension three. The admissible vec-

tors

˜

ξ

µ

must be orthogonal to k

µ

and thus form a three-

dimensional space. So the space of gauge-transformed so-

lutions (33) cannot be more than three-dimensional, but

it might be less than three-dimensional if some gauge-

transformed solutions coincide with

˜

h

(0)

µν

. This however

cannot happen since the tensor

˜

ξ

µ

k

ν

+

˜

ξ

ν

k

µ

is never zero

for

˜

ξ

µ

= 0 and k

µ

= 0. Therefore the space of gauge-

equivalent solutions is always a three-dimensional aﬃne

subspace of S, and the remaining physically independent

space has dimension two.

Finally, we shall consider the last remaining case k

µ

=

0 (the zero mode). This perturbation mode corresponds

to the space-independent perturbation h

µν

(x) = h

(0)

µν

=

const. One can show that this perturbation is pure gauge,

i.e. is gauge-equivalent to the zero perturbation. For in-

stance, one can perform a gauge transformation

h

µν

→h

µν

+ ξ

µ,ν

+ ξ

ν,µ

(34)

with

ξ

µ

= −

1

2

h

(0)

µν

x

ν

, (35)

which will change h

µν

(x) = h

0

µν

into zero.

The conclusion is that small metric perturbations in

general relativity have two vacuum DOF and are limited

to modes with k

α

k

α

= 0, k

α

= 0.

This result was obtained using the equations of mo-

tion for metric perturbations h

µν

on a ﬂat background

η

µν

. A natural question is whether the number of vacuum

DOF depends on the background: for instance, whether

there are still two independent perturbation modes in

the neighborhood of a black hole. The answer is that the

number of vacuum DOF does not depend on the back-

ground.

To understand this issue, let us consider a ﬁxed space-

time point (t

0

, x

0

). We expect that perturbations have

the same number of DOF at all points. To describe the

behavior of the perturbations, it is suﬃcient to impose

the equations of motion in a small neigborhood of (t

0

, x

0

).

We may choose the coordinates in this neighborhood such

that the metric is approximately given by Eq. (15). Then

the reasoning shown in this section will apply to all modes

with suﬃciently small wavelengths, and we shall again

ﬁnd two vacuum DOF. The number of DOF is deﬁned as

the dimension of space of solutions restricted to the point

(t

0

, x

0

) and is independent of the chosen neighborhood

of that point (and of the choice of the point itself).

In the next section we shall generalize this construction

to an arbitrary nonlinear ﬁeld theory and show that the

number of vacuum DOF can be computed in essentially

the same way in all such theories.

D. Vacuum DOF in nonlinear ﬁeld theories

The deﬁnition of vacuum DOF and the calculation in

the previous sections relied on the fact that the Maxwell

equations are linear in the ﬁelds and that the solutions

form a vector space. For nonlinear ﬁeld theories (e.g. gen-

eral relativity) we therefore need to slightly modify our

deﬁnition of DOF and the corresponding computational

procedure.

Consider a ﬁeld theory with a ﬁeld Q

i

having N real-

valued components (i = 1, ..., N); for instance, in gen-

eral relativity the “ﬁeld” is the metric g

µν

(x) which has

10 independent components. We shall assume that all

independent components of all relevant ﬁelds are incor-

porated into the single “ﬁeld” Q

i

. Suppose that the ﬁeld

Q

i

(x) satisﬁes some nonlinear equations of motion of the

form

F

∂

αβ

Q

i

, ∂

α

Q

i

, Q

i

= 0, (36)

where F(·, ·, ·) is some function. We have explicitly as-

sumed that the equations of motion are second-order in

derivatives of Q

i

, which is usually the case in ﬁeld the-

ories.

1

The ﬁeld theory may also admit gauge transfor-

mations of the form

Q

i

(x) →G

i

(∂

α

Q

i

(x), Q

i

(x), a(x)), (37)

where G

i

(·, ·, ·) is some function and a(x) is the param-

eter of the gauge transformation having an arbitrary de-

pendence on x. At this moment we do not consider a

speciﬁc form of the functions F and G and merely gen-

eralize the consideration of DOF to an arbitrary theory

of this form. Later we shall consider the vacuum DOF in

general relativity.

Using the analogy with electrodynamics where electro-

magnetic waves are small perturbations of the vacuum

A

µ

= 0, one can expect that the “vacuum degrees of free-

dom” in the ﬁeld theory (36) will be small perturbations

of a “vacuum state.” Thus we are lead to assuming that

1

Below we shall consider ﬁelds with higher-order derivatives as

well, but for now our considerations are valid only for ﬁelds with

second-order equations of motion.

6

Eq. (36) admits a special “vacuum state,” i.e. a solution

Q

i

vac

(x) which is physically interpreted as the “absence”

of the ﬁeld Q

i

. In electrodynamics the vacuum solution

is A

µ

= 0, but in a more general nonlinear ﬁeld theory

the vacuum solution may be a nontrivial function. For

instance, the vacuum solution in general relativity is the

ﬂat Minkowski metric g

µν

(x) = η

µν

.

Small perturbations δQ

i

(x) of the vacuum solution

Q

i

vac

(x) satisfy the linearized equation (36), namely

F

µνi

I

∂

αβ

Q

i

vac

, ∂

α

Q

i

vac

, Q

i

vac

∂

µν

δQ

i

+F

µi

II

∂

αβ

Q

i

vac

, ∂

α

Q

i

vac

, Q

i

vac

∂

µ

δQ

i

+F

i

III

∂

αβ

Q

i

vac

, ∂

α

Q

i

vac

, Q

i

vac

δQ

i

= 0, (38)

where F

µνi

I

, F

µi

II

, and F

i

III

are the partial derivatives of

the function F(·, ·, ·) with respect to its ﬁrst, second, and

third arguments, and we have neglected terms of order

O

(δQ)

2

**. The gauge transformation (37) induces the
**

corresponding transformation of the perturbation δQ

i

,

δQ

i

(x) →δQ

i

(x) +

∂G

i

∂

α

Q

i

vac

, Q

i

vac

, a

∂a

a. (39)

However, we are now considering only inﬁnitesimal per-

turbations δQ

i

and so we cannot allow the vacuum solu-

tion Q

i

vac

(x) to be signiﬁcantly changed by a gauge trans-

formation. Thus we need to consider the gauge freedom

only with respect to inﬁnitesimal gauge transformations,

where the gauge parameter a(x) is of the same order as

the perturbation δQ

i

. So we may approximate a ≈ 0

in the arguments of G in Eq. (39) because the error is

second-order, and the gauge transformation of the per-

turbation δQ

i

can be written as

δQ

i

(x) →δQ

i

(x) + aG

i

III

∂

α

Q

i

vac

, Q

i

vac

, a = 0

. (40)

Since Eq. (38) is linear in δQ

i

and Eq. (40) is linear in δQ

i

and a, the solutions form a linear space and we could now

apply the construction developed in the previous sections

to compute the number of the DOF, considering the small

perturbations δQ

i

as the “main ﬁeld.” Namely, the values

δQ

i

(t

0

, x

0

) at a ﬁxed spacetime point (t

0

, x

0

) the number

of DOF is equal to the dimension of the space S modulo

the gauge subspace.

To compute the number of DOF, we need to apply the

Fourier transform to Eqs. (38)-(40), but these are now

diﬀerential equations with nonconstant coeﬃcients such

as F

iαβ

I

(x). To overcome this diﬃculty, we note that the

number of DOF is determined only by the behavior of

the ﬁeld Q

i

in an arbitrarily small neighborhood of an

arbitrary point (t

0

, x

0

). The coeﬃcients F

iαβ

I

(x), etc.,

entering Eqs. (38)-(40), can be treated as constants in an

inﬁnitesimal neighborhood of (t

0

, x

0

), as long as the ﬁelds

are not singular at that point. Since the number of DOF

does not depend on the choice of the point (t

0

, x

0

), we

may choose (t

0

, x

0

) such that all coeﬃcients in Eqs. (38)-

(40) evaluated at that point are ﬁnite and nonsingular.

Thus we can replace the original system of equations (38)-

(40) by linear equations in δQ

i

with constant coeﬃcients,

evaluated at the point (t

0

, x

0

),

F

µνi

I

(x

0

)∂

µν

δQ

i

+ F

µi

II

(x

0

)∂

µ

δQ

i

+ F

i

III

(x

0

)δQ

i

= 0,

δQ

i

(x) →δQ

i

(x) + G

i

III

(x

0

)a.

The number of DOF in the ﬁeld δQ

i

can be determined

using this latter system of equations, since these equa-

tions describe a ﬁeld theory which is equivalent to the

original ﬁeld theory in an inﬁnitesimal neighborhood of

the point x

0

≡ (t

0

, x

0

). We now apply the Fourier trans-

form and arrive to the equations

−F

µνj

I

(x

0

)k

µ

k

ν

+ ik

µ

F

µj

II

(x

0

) + F

j

III

(x

0

)

δ

˜

Q

j

= 0,

(41)

δ

˜

Q

i

→δ

˜

Q

i

+ G

i

III

(x

0

)˜ a. (42)

These are now treated as ﬁnite-dimensional algebraic

equations depending on the parameter k

µ

and containing

an arbitrary scalar ˜ a. Since Eq. (41) is homogeneous, its

solutions form a subspace S in the original N-dimensional

ﬁeld space of vectors δ

˜

Q

i

. The gauge transformation (42)

generates a one-dimensional space P of “pure gauge” so-

lutions which is a subspace (possibly empty) within S.

The number of DOF is found as the dimension of the

space S modulo the pure gauge subspace, dim(S/P).

The consideration is straightforwardly adapted to the

case when the gauge transformation contains several

scalar parameters a

j

(x), j = 1, 2, ... instead of a(x). Note

that the dimensions of the spaces P and S depend on the

wave vector k

µ

and thus we need to enumerate all the pos-

sibilities. Typically these possibilities will depend only on

the value of k

µ

k

µ

; for instance, in electrodynamics and in

general relativity the dimension of P/S is nonzero only

for null vectors k

µ

.

III. SUMMARY

There are two rather diﬀerent questions one asks about

the DOF of a physical ﬁeld:

1) How many diﬀerent scalar-valued functions of space-

time do we need to fully describe the physical states of

the ﬁeld? (Deﬁnition 1)

2) How many diﬀerent vacuum solutions does the ﬁeld

have? (Deﬁnition 2)

In both cases one asks for the “degrees of freedom” but

one means two quite diﬀerent things.

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